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En Route Southwest Border Press Gaggle by Secretary Mattis

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JAMES N. MATTIS:  OK, first of all, thank you for coming on the trip.  I'm headed to McAllen, Texas on the southern border, going to be, I think, conferring with Secretary Nielsen, certainly with her staff down there.  I'm assuming that she was able to get away from Washington, she's got obviously a lot going on there.

But also General O'Shaughnessy, our NORTHCOM Commander will meet me down there, as well.  He was previously scheduled to be there, so this all lined up pretty well.  I want to see how the troops are doing who have been deployed in support of the Department of Homeland Security and the Customs and Border Patrol [Protection] agents on the border.

Border security is part of national security.  Our units are in a position to enable the Border Patrol's law enforcement operations.  We determined that that mission was absolutely legal and this is also reviewed by Department of Justice lawyers.

It's obviously a moral and ethical mission to support our border patrolmen.  There's nothing new under the sun, I would put this in a little historic context.  I think many of you are aware that President Wilson 100 years ago -- a little over 100 years ago deployed the U.S. Army to the Southwest border.

That's over a century ago.  The threat then was Pancho Villa's troops, a revolutionary raiding across the border into the United States, New Mexico in 1916.  And there's a more recent history of DOD's support on the border. 

It spans four administrations of both political parties.  During President Clinton's administration from 1994 to 1995, the National Guard and several hundred active duty personnel -- military personnel were assigned to assist law enforcement. They manned observation posts and they moved cargo and vehicles down there to support their effort, and they also did cargo and vehicle inspections at the border and did aircraft surveillance for counter-narcotics efforts.

Under President Bush it was an operation called Operation Jumpstart, and that was from 2006 to 2008 and involved about 6,000 National Guardsmen down on the border.  Under President Obama, we had Operation Phalanx that was from 2010 to 2017.

It involved about 1,200 -- around 1,200 National Guardsmen.  That was the longest period, by the way, of U.S. military support for the border.  It was during the previous administration under President Obama.  

Under President Trump, under Guardian Support this year, we've had 2,100 National Guardsmen training down on the border and in October, Secretary Nielsen -- the Secretary of -- of the Department of Homeland Security, requested DOD support in addition to the National Guard.

This was due to an unprecedented situation with multiple, large-scale caravans en route to the Southwest border.  You've seen this on the -- on the news.  One of the caravans overran the border checkpoint between Guatemala and the Mexican border and clashed with Mexican police.

I think some of you have probably seen the -- the New York Times article from October 19th about the -- the wounded police officers in Mexico at that time.  So today, where are we at?  The Department of Homeland Security remains in the lead, NORTHCOM -- U.S. Northern Command under General O'Shaughnessy -- is in support of DHS and the customs and border police law enforcement efforts.

We are providing planning and engineering support, equipment, transportation support and temporary housing for Customs and Border Patrol [Protection] personnel and their medical teams.  I think we also have medical teams on the border supplementing the border patrol's medical teams.

But DOD -- the Department of Defense missions do not involve military personnel, at this time, directly participating in any law enforcement.  Law enforcement is left in the hands of the customs and border police who have the statutory authority to carry that out.

At the present, I do not anticipate military personnel coming into direct contact with migrants.  I would just note my full confidence in General O'Shaughnessy and his NORTHCOM team.  

The troops were deployed under Army North -- are very highly disciplined and the only personnel there actually carrying weapons since the engineers are engaged at putting in barriers, barbed wire, jersey barriers to permit the Border Patrol to maintain support -- excuse me, maintain control over the ports of entry and nearby.

The troops doing that obviously are not armed, they don't need their weapons.  The engineers will lay the barbed wire, the soldiers, Marines doing that are over-watched by MP's (military police) who are armed and the normal force protection wherever they go.

The military maintains that stance, but the ones actually doing the missions there are not armed.  The military police will provide force protection for those service members who are supporting customs & border police and putting in the obstacles.

We are also rehearsing helicopter deployment.  The deployment is done by our helicopters and its Border Patrolmen.  In other words, we rehearse picking up their troops, moving them to a location, dropping them off in a safe location so they can reinforce other Border Patrol, should they need reinforcement.

But again, these helicopters are not moving our troops around right now, they're actually working at putting in the obstacles.  As of 13 November, this is the number as of last night I received -- about 5,900 troops are deployed to support the Border Patrol.

That number will fluctuate as units deploy, other units, when they get done with their mission, will go back to home station.  So that number, you'll see it going up and down, I wanted to just keep you informed on a daily basis of what it is.

I anticipate, right now, it can go around 7,000, although I -- I prefer to say that we'll just keep you updated daily with how many troops are there, then you have an accurate number.  The -- so that's what I'm doing down on the border.

I would tell you that going around the world a little bit, our troops engage in supporting the defeat ISIS fight continue that fight in both the Middle Euphrates River Valley, but also the interdiction efforts that try to pick them up in various other locations as they maneuver, as the -- the ISIS troops try to escape, they try to reconcentrate and the Iraqi Security Forces, with our support, are equally engaged in that fight in Iraq.

As you know, they collapsed the geographic caliphate there, but as we have told you for many, many months, over a year now, the fight goes on as they splinter into smaller groups and we continue to hunt them down there.

Let me -- I think that's enough right now, cause your questions are probably on the border.  So why don't we go to Q&A on the record here?  Phil, why don't we start with you?

Q:  OK, well a few questions.  First, you know, I -- I know that you're keeping track of the cost.  We've seen estimates ... 

SEC. MATTIS:  Oh, yeah.

Q:  We've seen estimates that this could cost, you know, $200 million.


Q:  Is that -- is that over the top?  Is that too much?  Is it going be less than that?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah.  The question is about the cost of the support to Customs and Border Patrol [Protection].  In the -- what we call the execute order that went out, all of the units are tasked with tracking all costs associated.  They will compile those costs and send them up.

Now, to the engineer battalion or to the helicopter company or squadron that deployed, we have not received those costs.  So we can estimate costs all we want, I'd prefer to give you real costs.  Right now, I can't give that to you.

It's the cost of deploying them, it's the cost of transferring their equipment to the border, it's fuel costs, it's all those kinds of costs.  So I just don't want to get into something I can't give you what I believe confidently is accurate.

So I don't want to forecast it right now.

Q:  So you don't think it's going to be -- be -- you can't even say in the ballpark, hundreds of millions, tens of millions?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah, I -- you know, I honestly don't want to say right now.  They are -- they will report it to me, I've been very busy on the decisions that need to be made now.  I know what information I'm getting is not anywhere near right and I don't -- I'm not going to pull other people off other issues to try to forecast costs when I believe very quickly we'll know the real costs.

So we'll keep you posted as the real costs come in.  I would tell you that because there's a -- there's another cost that everyone wants to know, and that is, is this costing us readiness?  It's been interesting -- whoops, sorry about that one.

It's been interesting to see the feedback, I would say, from the captains, lieutenant colonels and senior NCO's.  One of them -- the report came into me, they said, we were not anticipating this, we received the warning order, we got the execute order, we had to deploy to a non-traditional mission away from home station.

These are all the same things we would do if we were deploying anywhere in the world, and he said right now, he said we're deployed, we're living out of tents.  He said this is actually very good training because they’re rehearsing everything that we do in a real -- in a deployment elsewhere in the world.

So had I put myself in his shoes, I could have anticipated that but in fact, in terms of readiness, it's actually, I believe so far improving our readiness for deployment, for making certain our procedures for mount-out are correct and we know how to get stuff on board aircraft for -- for movement.

So far the -- that cost has not been borne out, it's actually helping us.

SEC. MATTIS:  Go ahead, Mosheh.
Q:  So I had a question about the -- so the -- the name of the mission has changed ... 

SEC. MATTIS:  The what -- the what?

Q:  The name of the -- physical name of the mission was changed.  Could you kind of talk us through why?

SEC. MATTIS:  The question is, the name of the mission has changed.  When the name of the mission first came in, I had given instructions: I do not want to put this mission in some arcane military terms.  If what we're doing is laying wire, don't talk about implementing a barrier plan.  Put it -- that's what we do in training.  I want to talk to the American people, because this is a highly politically visible issue, and I want you to tell them what we're doing.  I want you to tell them we are operating in support of Customs, or of Border Police.  Do not say we're supporting a federal agency; tell them what we're doing.  

So when you saw the reporting coming out, it was my continued direction to quit using military terms, quit using terms that don't tell people -- yeah, I've got it.  Thank you.  Does that help?

(UNKNOWN):  Thank you, sir.

SEC. MATTIS:  All right.  No sweat.

Quit using terms that mean a lot to us, and are subject to misinterpretation by people not trained at Fort Leavenworth and commandant staff colleagues.  That's all I changed, OK?  And that's -- and that's the reason for anything that you see, as we try to talk about -- I -- I'll give you the example. 

I directed, this morning, not to use the word "secure" a certain location.  Secure, in military terms, means one thing.  It's subject to a whole lot of other interpretations, understandably, by people who use Webster's dictionary, OK?  So it's not that we're right and they're wrong, or we're wrong and they're right.  I said, "Talk in terms that people understand.  It's their country, it's their border."  So that's what's going on, mostly.  You had another question, Phil?

Q:  Yeah, just a follow-up to -- what -- what was the misinterpretation you were seeing?

SEC. MATTIS:  No, no, no.  I'm saying I've told -- I'm telling, though, do not allow a thing to be misinterpreted.  Tell them what the mission is.  That's all -- that -- that's the direction I've given.  That's all there is to it.  It is nothing more -- we can put this in the most arcane military terms, and all I'm going to do is answer another 30 questions from you about, "What did you mean by 'secure'?  What did you mean by 'employ weapons'?"  You know, that sort of thing, or 'do not deploy with weapons.' -- all that.  We're going to tell you what we're doing.  We're -- the engineers are not carrying weapons.  There's a military way I can describe that, or I can put it in understandable terms.  That's all I did.

Q:  So one of the big criticisms from folks on the Hill and elsewhere, including the former chairman, they said this...

SEC. MATTIS:  Who was the last one?

Q:  The former chairman, Dempsey, was also critical of this deployment, and the criticism is that there's no real threat to justify this deployment, to bring in active duty military to the border.  How would you respond to that?


Q:  How would you respond to that?

SEC. MATTIS:  Well, I would refer them to the New York Times, and what happened to the Mexican police, and I would just leave that to the secretary of -- of the Department of Homeland Security.  She's a professional.  Her commissioner of Border Patrol, Customs and Border Patrol [Protection], professional.  The people responsible for the mission are the ones I listen to in something like this.

Q:  And they think it is necessary?

SEC. MATTIS:  I'm sorry?

Q:  And they think it is necessary?  You think it's necessary, based on the threat?

SEC. MATTIS:  They're -- I think that it's very clear that support to Border Police -- or border patrol is necessary right now.  If they come to me and say, "We do not have the people to put in barbed wire.  We do not have the -- we don't have the capability to use helicopters and move people around.  We don't have the helicopters."  I mean, clearly, moving their people around to face something that could be what the Mexican police were unable to handle on the Guatemala border -- this is something I'd defer to their judgment.  They're the ones who are held responsible to maintain our sovereignty.  

Q:  And then -- and then this -- do you believe that these forces are going to be deployed, you know, through Thanksgiving, potentially through Christmas?  What do you -- I mean...


Q:  What would you say to their families, who are wondering how long this deployment's going to last?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah.  I mean, I've got the troops deployed from Syria and Iraq to the Pacific.  They're out in the Atlantic.  You saw that we just finished one of the largest NATO exercises, and the troops have just -- the ships have just pulled into our NATO ally, Portugal's port of Lisbon.  We are going to continue to have troops deployed, and this is just for our military.  We're a 365-day-a-year military.  Rain or shine, light or dark, cold weather or hot weather -- we have an all-weather force that's on duty 24/7.  

Drive around the Pentagon on Thanksgiving Day, and look at the number of cars in the parking lot of people who work right through the holidays.  Some of you were with me when we were at Guantanamo Bay last Thanksgiving timeframe.  Troops were down there.

Kind of, all I can say to the American people:  Welcome to your military.  It's on duty.

Mosheh, you had a question.

Q:  There was -- there was some reporting last week that the Pentagon rejected a query that the Pentagon would -- that the troops, basically, would do crowd control at the border.  Could you kind of shed light on some of the -- some of that reporting that they have?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah.  Mosheh, -- right now, the only thing we've been asked for is to put in obstacles, provide transportation, and to provide housing for border -- they've had to move a number of Border Patrol people into -- where they just didn't -- you know, they moved them from other places.  So obstacle placement, transportation, helicopters, basically, and some C-130s that would move a larger number of troops longer distances.  For example, we had to move them from Texas, where I'll be today to Arizona, or something like that.  We've been asked for nothing more right now, so I -- I'd prefer to stay with what we've been asked for, what we're doing about it.  If we get something new, obviously, we'll brief you on where we're at on it.  And one of the reasons I maintain daily communication with the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security is to make certain we're hearing how they read -- the ones responsible, how they read the border situation and the security on the border.  So right now, that's what we're doing -- that -- that mission.

Another question, then we'll go off the record.  We think we can talk a little more.

Q:  That’s great and you can answer this again, when we get, after your briefings and all that.  But there has been some questions about, given the changing direction of the caravans...

SEC. MATTIS:  Oh, yeah.

Q:  ... whether or not you might consider, you know, a different weighted deployments, and maybe you're heavy in Texas, and light in California.

SEC. MATTIS:  Oh, yeah.  I see.
Right now, what we're doing -- they have defined what they need in each area.  So we've deployed troops to each of the ports of entry that they've said they want addressed.  I would anticipate, with what we've been asked to do so far, probably within a week to 10 days, we'll have done what's needed.

Now, there -- of course, it's a dynamic situation.  There'll be new requests coming in.  But we can move the troops back and forth.  Right now, because we're just putting in the obstacles, I'm -- I'm 100 percent confident we have the number of troops in each of those ports of entry to complete the -- what we've been asked to do, prior to the arrival of the large caravans, wherever they choose to go, for right now.

Q:  Thank you.